Lit Crit

A New Caste Society

October 08, 2014

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A New Caste Society

Last week I looked at the multiple ironies of the young Barack Obama’s dismissive 1994 review of The Bell Curve. Today, 20 years after the publication of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s magnum opus, let’s score the authors’ predictions.

First, does America in 2014 still look like the America described in The Bell Curve?

Yes, America today is like the America Herrnstein and Murray described, only more so.

One scandalous assumption of The Bell Curve was that racial differences in average intelligence (and the behavioral traits that correlate with intelligence) wouldn’t change very quickly. Twenty years later, Herrnstein and Murray look prescient on that count.

Heck, very little has changed even in the 42 years I’ve been reading social scientists. As I’ve joked before, when I became interested in the quantitative literature on educational achievement in ninth grade in 1972, the racial rankings went:

1. Orientals
2. Caucasians
3. Chicanos
4. Blacks


Today, the order is:

1. Asians
2. Whites
3. Hispanics
4. African-Americans


Indeed, the biggest change since The Bell Curve has been that Asians are now pulling away from whites for undisputed control of the top spot.

“One reason for the lack of urban white underclass neighborhoods is that poor whites have negligible political representation.”

Second, let’s review Herrnstein and Murray’s more ambitious and alarming predictions from their semi-dystopian penultimate Chapter 21, “The Way We Are Headed.” (Chapter 22, “A Place for Everyone,” offers policy suggestions to bring about a more heartening future.) As the subtitle Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life explains, The Bell Curve is chiefly a book about the growth of inequality. In 1994 they saw three main tendencies:

An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.

A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.

A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.

They warned:

Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose.

That seems awfully timely.

They asked:

Do you think the rich in America already have too much power? Or do you think the intellectuals already have too much power? We are suggesting that a “yes” to both questions is probably right. And if you think the power of these groups is too great now, just watch what happens as their outlooks and interests converge.

By contrast:

All of the problems that these children [of low intelligence] experience will become worse rather than better as they grow older, for the labor market they will confront a few decades down the road is going to be much harder for them to cope with than the labor market is now.

It’s hard to argue with that, especially after another two decades of the establishment winking at illegal immigration, which has done poor Americans no good whatsoever.

Much of Chapter 21 of The Bell Curve is devoted to “The Coming of the Custodial State,” a country that more or less gives up on its poor and stupid other than to try to keep them from causing trouble. Herrnstein and Murray explained:

The main difference between the position of the cognitive elite that we portray here and the one that exists today is to some extent nothing more than the distinction between tacit and explicit.

Since then, of course, what was tacit knowledge in 1994 has become ever more ferociously forbidden to mention out loud (see the careers of James D. Watson and Jason Richwine). But many of the policy developments of the last 20 years reflect the reality described by The Bell Curve, just in a more ignorant fashion due to the ban on honest public discussion.

Thus, some of Herrnstein and Murray’s predictions appear to have been ripped from 21st century headlines:

One possibility is that a variety of old police practices—especially the stop-and-frisk—will quietly come back into use in new guises.

As you’ll recall, crime-fighting billionaire Michael Bloomberg, mayor of Gotham New York City from 2002-2013, instituted a massive system of stop-and-frisk, targeting younger black and Latino males (aka “the right people”). But who can remember what the NYPD did to make New York City so much safer than in 1994 when it’s more important to obsess over the Ferguson, MO police force …

Child care in the inner city will become primarily the responsibility of the state.

The new New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, has instituted “universal pre-K” to get poor children away from their mothers at any cost. We are repeatedly informed these days that blacks don’t talk enough, so their children must be taken away from them and raised by professionals.

A more mixed prediction was:

The homeless will vanish.

There appear to be fewer homeless on the streets of New York City today than a generation ago, but some other cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, appear to be holding on to them as a talisman of their lost liberalism.

A bad prediction, however, was:

The underclass will become even more concentrated spatially than it is today.

Herrnstein and Murray underestimated how ruthless the cognitive elite has become at handing off the hot potato of the underclass to less privileged Americans in suburbs and small towns to deal with. Granted, they predicted in 1994:

The most likely consequence in our view is that the cognitive elite, with its commanding position, will implement an expanded welfare state for the underclass that also keeps it out from underfoot.

Herrnstein and Murray’s biggest mistake was in not taking their figure of speech “out from underfoot” literally enough. The growing geographic concentration of the cognitive elite into a handful of metropolitan areas, along with their control over the narrative within an increasingly national media, has allowed them to increasingly dump numbers of the formerly urban underclass on downscale suburbs, exurbs, and rural America.

For example, 26 years ago my wife and I were standing on Chicago’s North Avenue, a block from the notorious Cabrini Green housing project, whose residents blighted what otherwise would have been some of the most valuable acreage in the Midwest. A white real estate developer noticed us peering at the Tribune’s real estate ads, so he approached and told us that we should buy now because a secret deal was in the works to tear down Cabrini Green and convert this neighborhood into a yuppie utopia.

I asked: Which alderman would agree to take Cabrini Green’s residents? He didn’t have an answer for that, so we passed.


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